The Human Factors of Science

Good way to look at it no?

It is impossible to disassociate language from science. To call forth a concept, a word is needed.

Antoine Lavoisier

Well that ladies and gents was the most confusing two hours and ten minutes of my life. This week we watched a movie (La Question Humaine, for those of you looking to be confused) that, on the surface at least, was about an industrial psychologist who had been heavily involved in the restructuring of a factory based corporation. The man appears to lose his mind over the course of the film as he attempts to determine if the CEO has lost his. I am exhausted after watching the film once, and Dr Lamontagne wants us to watch it multiple times.

The film drew a number of interesting parallels between the language used during the Holocaust and the language used in the corporate world of figures, profits, and units. Which for some reason, despite multiple references to the Holocaust throughout the film, did not dawn on me until the end. I’m still digesting a lot of what the film had to say though so I’ll get back to you on that one later.

A second parallel emerged as I thought about all of this on the bus ride home – the film was in French, thankfully with English subtitles, but a language barrier was created. It distanced me from the film in the same way that scientific language distances itself from humanity. In the context of the film, it allowed Dr Kessler to distance himself from reality – by describing layoff procedures in scientific terms with scientific rational, he didn’t have to deal with the fact that those criteria were applied to people. People who maybe had families that depended on them, or who had just undergone a difficult time. Dr Kessler of course tries to deny that he played a role in cutting the staff from “2500 units to 1200 units” by saying that he only created the criteria, and justifying why those criteria were valid. For example – laying off alcoholics because they were a safety hazard and would be unable to react quickly enough in an emergency situation. I found this example particularly amusing, because by the end of the film I was convinced that they were all alcoholics. EVERY time two characters met to talk – they either poured a drink or already had one. Even while at work they pulled back wall panels to booze stashes. I mean REALLY?!

So all of this brought me to the question: are we seeking to understand the mind or define it with jargon, facts, and data so that at the end of the day our understanding is no clearer but we have at least described our lack of understanding scientifically? Something to think about on the bus.

The film was introduced as a discussion of the human condition and the limits of science. Science in the sense of operationalized concepts and a world of pragmatics. We talked about the brain and behaviour as subject matter, but what about beyond that? How far can science really reach? There is still a lot of thinking I will have to do before I fully understand the film and all its nuances, but it did tie into a lot of the thoughts I’ve been working on this past week. Psychology often aims at sorting human behaviour into all these scientific terms, but in doing that does psychology not lose sight of its subject matter?

I have spent a lot of time pondering what exactly psychologists are in the clinical sense. When someone goes to a therapist or counsellor, what are they expecting? We expect them to fix our problems, make us see the light of day, and clear up the confusion in our lives. In my experience, that isn’t exactly what they do though. Instead, they help you find the solutions you already had. So then do they effectively become trained listeners? Maybe so – but as pretty much all of my graduate school searches have shown – they work from the “scientist-practitioner model,” which basically means that everything they do in practice is based on research that has been done and shown to be effective in treatment. And yet we acknowledge that, especially with children, treatment is not universal – individuals respond to treatments differently, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, at least not one that’s been discovered yet. I have not had any clinical training yet, so who knows – maybe they will teach me how to connect with people, and be objective at the same time, and know which research to apply when. Seems like a pretty big ticket item, no wonder I will be in school for the next 7 years.

So, if clinical psychology is about relying on research in practice, then we must consider the scientific side of the coin that informs them how to best work. Science to me is very cold and matter of fact. One of the key components of good science that I was taught in first year (good as in believable and worth something to the world), was that it could be replicated, but to be replicated EVERYTHING had to be defined objectively. I have read numerous studies describing “participants” as a series of numbers – mean age and range of ages, gender distributions, ethnicity distributions, etc. Hundreds of people, collapsed into a set of statistics – people collapsed into numbers. Measurement tools are broken down in extensive detail, procedures explicitly stated. Which is wholly necessary – don’t get me wrong here, I think research is important, it is what shows us where we are wrong, how things have changed. Without some form of research we would still believe the Sun revolved around the Earth, women were responsible for the sex of the child, drinking during pregnancy had no ill effects, and insanity was the result of possession by evil spirits.

Science knows some things with more certainty than others – which is why those areas are more broadly accepted as a science. Does that mean that for something to be science it has to be known with absolute certainty though? Because the black holes seem like prime examples of where we only know part of the story, and I am quite certain we’ll never know the whole story, since no one is going to volunteer to jump in one. Or get sucked in. Or whatever else happens for a person to enter a black hole. Maybe they have to be a teenager and do something embarrassing? And then a black hole opens up in the middle of the room?

Seems legit.

Seems legit.

Without engaging once again in my internal debate of ‘is psychology a science?’ – allow me to present the full line of thought from this week. Firstly, psychologists are generally presumed to be these all knowing beings of the human mind, at least by the laymen. I have been asked numerous times, the instant I say that I am in psychology, to “psychologize me.” As if I just walk around keeping mental files on everyone and all the accumulated knowledge will suddenly come to me and I will explain your entire being in 5 minutes.

The aim of psychology does seem to be to understand others, to generate patterns that allow us to predict what our fellow humans will do. And if we throw in the animal psychologists, we are trying to predict the beasts too, but let’s just keep it relatively simple. So we are assigned with predicting and understanding humanity, and all its complexities, its differences, its weaknesses, and how we can fix people when they are ‘broken’ (by society’s standards). And yet, I don’t think there is a single person who would agree that they have themselves entirely understood, that they know everything that could go wrong and exactly how to fix themselves if something in their psyche were to go awry. We try to understand others without understanding ourselves. Which leads us to try and remove ourselves from our subjects of study, but is that really possible? Psychologists are meant to be/assumed to be wonderfully rational, but are they not human too? We elevate them to robotic attitudes, but does that no separate them from humanity by elevating them to such a rational level? By speaking in technical terms and jargon, we separate ourselves from what we are talking about – PEOPLE. Even if you take subjects of study to mean areas of mental health, such as depression – your subject is part of a person. It is a potentially abstract concept, but that abstract concept is still a part of a person. You can never fully separate the subject of study from its host. Just as you cannot remove psychologists from humanity. We try to, we assume that they are inherently rational, wise, and aware of themselves in a way that we cannot be – but at the end of the day, they may be just as confused about themselves as the people they see.

Which I realize may make it sound as if I have no faith in psychology and I think science is useless when it comes to the human mind.

That’s not exactly the case. I am studying psychology, and haven’t given up and changed majors since coming to these realizations. More so this has made me aware of the importance of both the human connection and the scientific terminology. The terminology allows us to have universally understood concepts. Can you imagine if something as simple as a “collie” or a “cat” meant something different to every person you encountered? It would be chaos. Thus the language has a purpose – by describing clinically depressed people in terms of scientifically agreed upon terms, you are ensuring that all professionals will understand. At the same time, you have to recognize that in psychology, those terms apply to people too. We are not describing the behaviour of atoms. People are not depressed patients, they are people with depression.

End game?

We can’t reduce people to numbers and facts all the time. In the scientific research element, it may be helpful to allow us to come to an understanding of how certain things related to the human condition MAY work – for example what factors may contribute to the development and maintenance of depression, or to evaluate relative effectiveness of several potential treatments for eating disorders. However, at the end of the day, the research will be applied to actual people. Science, at least in psychology, must never forget that. It also must remember that it is neither universal, nor always accurate in its understandings.

Good way to look at it no?

Good way to look at it no?

“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”


ALSO: Quicky side note: Thursday’s post is being moved to Saturday! Spread out the goodness a little more now that this section has been added!


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